Barrington Irving is very good at rising above obstacles. Literally. Raised in Miami’s inner city, surrounded by crime, poverty, and failing schools, he beat the odds to become the youngest person and only African American ever to fly solo around the world. He built a plane himself, made his historic flight, graduated magna cum laude from an aeronautical science program, and founded a dynamic educational nonprofit. Then he turned 28.

His message for kids: “The only thing that separates you from CEOs in corner offices or scientists in labs is determination, hard work, and a passion for what you want to acheive. The only person who can stop you from doing something great is you. Even if no one believes in your dream, you have to pursue it.” The secret, he believes, is having a dream in the first place, and that starts with powerful learning experiences that inspire kids to pursue careers—particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The moment of inspiration for Irving came at age 15 while working in his parent’s bookstore. One of their customers, a Jamaican born professional pilot, asked Irving if he’d ever thought about becoming a pilot. “I told him I didn’t think I was smart enough; but the next day he gave me the chance to sit in the cockpit of the commercial airplane he flew, and just like that I was hooked. There are probably millions of kids out there like me who find science and exploration amazing, but lack the confidence or opportunity to take the next step.”

To follow his dream, Irving turned down a full football scholarship to the University of Florida. He washed airplanes to earn money for flight school and increased his flying skills by practicing at home on a forty-dollar flight simulator video game.

Then another dream took hold: flying solo around the world. He faced more than 50 rejections for sponsorship before convincing several manufacturers to donate individual aircraft components. He orchestrated the assembly of the plane from the donated parts and took off with no weather radar, no de-icing system, and just thirty dollars in his pocket. “I like to do things people say I can’t do.”

After 97 days, 26 stops, and dozens of thunderstorms, monsoons, snowstorms, and sandstorms, he touched down to a roaring crowd in Miami. “Stepping from the plane, it wasn’t all the fanfare that changed my life. It was seeing so many young people watching and listening. I had no money, but I was determined to give back with my time, knowledge, and experience.” He has been doing it ever since.

Irving’s nonprofit, Experience Aviation, aims to boost the numbers of youth in aviation and other science and math related careers. Middle and high school students attend summer and after-school programs tackling hands-on robotics projects, flight simulator challenges, and field trips to major industries and corporations. In his ‘Build and Soar’ program, 60 students from failing schools built an airplane from scratch in just ten weeks and then watched Irving pilot it into the clouds. “We want to create a one-of-a-kind opportunity for students to take ownership and accomplish something amazing,” he notes. “Meaningful, real-world learning experiences fire up the neurons in kids’ minds. If you don’t do that, you’ve lost them. Purposeful, inspiring activities increase the chance they’ll stay on that learning and career path. We’ve had one young lady receive a full scholarship to Duke University as a math major and several young men are now pilots, engineers, and aircraft mechanics.”

“It’s great to reach a few hundred kids every year,” he says, “but I also wanted to find a way to inspire on a larger scale.” How about millions of kids? Irving’s next endeavor will transform a jet into a flying classroom that will circle the globe sharing science, technology, engineering, math, geography, culture, and history. “This isn’t just an aircraft; it’s an exploration vehicle for learning that will teach millions of kids in ways they’ve never been taught before—making them part of the expedition and research.”

The web-based experience will make it easy for kids to participate at home and school, voting on everything from where Irving should make a fuel stop to what local food he should sample. He plans to call classrooms from the cockpit; broadcast live video from 45,000 feet; blog with students; collect atmospheric data; communicate with the International Space Station; and wear a NASA body suit that transmits his heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs.

Along the way, kids will have a virtual window on about 75 ground expeditions including Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, the pyramids, the Serengeti Plains, the Roman Coliseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China. Cameras will provide 360 degree panoramic views of destinations from ancient archeological sites to Hong Kong skyscrapers. Apps will track adventures such as shark tagging, giving students ongoing location and water temperature data.

A steady stream of challenges will let kids compete to solve problems ranging from evacuating populations after tsunamis to collecting trash in space. “We also want to create a forum where kids, parents, and teachers can speak to astronauts, scientists, and other specialists. The ‘Journey for Knowledge’ flight is scheduled to depart in 2013 and will make Irving the holder of a number of world records once again.”

Perhaps Irving’s most compelling educational tool is the example his own life provides. After landing his record-breaking flight at age 23, he smiled out at the airfield crowd and said, “Everyone told me what I couldn’t do. They said I was too young; that I didn’t have enough money, experience, strength, or knowledge. They told me it would take forever and I’d never come home. Well…guess what?”

Among Barrington’s many accolades is a 2007 Congressional Resolution acknowledging his historic achievement and his pioneering work in the field of aviation education. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Florida Memorial University, he is also the recipient of the highest honor given by the Florida State Senate, the Medallion of Excellence.

Content: Experience Aviation

Photo: Zimbio

Miami, Florida

Miami, FL